Liberation’s Option

By Rei Lemuel Crizaldo, Lead Co-oordinator for Integral Mission at Micah Philippines

Ever bought those nice finds in rummage shops for a cheaper price? But once you unpack it at home, you suddenly realize that it was already without the full package of the original? I myself once found a good pair of sneakers ‘on sale’ but minus the original shoestrings. Obviously, it made me think twice whether I should settle for the bargain and just live with what was lacking. In today’s marketplace of Christianity, one would also encounter similar versions of theological goodies on sale. The price tag may come appealing but what you might get is wanting upon closer inspection.

A case for example, do a careful re-reading of the Bible and it shall make today’s popular offer of salvation, i.e., “your soul’s chance of migrating to heaven,” look like no different from those rundown goods on a markdown sale.[1] This blunt comparison has to be made considering that God’s plan of redemption, that is, his mission of renewing all that He has made, includes the planet, its people, and their pattern of life. That is, today’s devastated creation, polluted rivers and corrupted human beings alike, including the deteriorating cultures and civilizations that thrive within it are all objects of God’s liberating mission. [2]

I came upon this observation upon realizing that the Bible speaks of salvation as the full restoration of all aspects of life in the world, exactly as God has sketched it from the very beginning.[3] A blueprint of this plan can be found in the initial pages of the book of Genesis.[4] In it, the writer presents a picture of a life wherein God and humanity were happily together, in a beautiful dwelling place, and with a pattern of relationship marked by trust, nurture, and joy. The Hebrews of old have a term for this particular way of life characterized by remarkable harmony – ‘shalom.’ Repeatedly, their prophets speak of a dream and a hope that is no less beautiful (see for example: Isaiah 65:17-25, Jeremiah 31, Micah 4).

Shalom is simply the Old Testament’s planetary vision for what in the New Testament was often referred to as God’s gift of ‘salvation.’ But make no mistake about it, the apostles Peter, John, and Paul have in mind a notion of redemption that is as equally comprehensive as that of Isaiah and Jeremiah.

The Victory of Christ

For an instance, Apostle Paul in Colossians 1:20 speaks of how God, through Christ and by His work on the cross, is reconciling “all things” in heaven and on earth back to Himself.[5] In this verse, the apostle to the Gentiles was alerting his readers at the city of Colossae that until then all of these things have been snatched away from God. And indeed, for a time, the whole world was in the clutches of the Evil One who has sought to steal all that was in it, drain it of its life, and ultimately cause its destruction (John 10:10). But this is not because this fiendish being has proven to be stronger than God and has actually prevailed against Him. No! It is simply because he has effectively triumphed over creation’s designated ruler and steward -human beings. To put it in contemporary terms, the Evil One laid siege on God’s earth, held its human rulers and inhabitants hostage, and terrorized what he was able to capture with his flag firmly planted in their hearts and homeland.[6]

How such terrorism of God’s creation happened is a loop that repeats itself throughout human history. But Genesis 1-3 unlock to us the internal mechanism of how this subtle infiltration works out. It tells a story of how the Serpent tricked the newly weds Adam and Eve and managed to subdue them under his will. By listening to the Enemy’s lies, the couple threw away God’s wonderful plan for their lives which is to be the world’s rightful ruler and caretaker (Gen. 1:27-27, 2:15). In effect, they exchanged God’s royal image in them (as prince and princess) for a lowly status of a refugee and a vagabond. Thereafter, the Evil One and his minions presented themselves as ‘gods’ and ‘rulers’ of this world (II Cor. 4:4, John 12:31, Ephesians 2:2). Later on, the Evil One even got the nerve to bribe God’s own Son in the flesh with all of the world’s riches and glory (which he claims to be his) in exchange for an undivided allegiance to him (Matt. 4:8-10).

But God’s Son knew better. He knew that His Father is launching a take-over project. That he was sent with a messianic mission of reclaiming control of all that which his Father has created, away from the clutches of the Evil One, and restore it to its rightful rulers. As John understands it, God’s Son was sent for the specific purpose of destroying the devil’s work (I John 3:8). Apostle Paul in Colossians 2:15 talks of how God’s Son has disarmed the Evil One and his minions of their powers. In his letter to the church at Ephesus (Eph. 4:8-10), he added how God’s Messiah has so effectively triumphed over them and that he succeeded in giving back to human beings their royal identities (Eph. 2:6, Col. 3:4). By a swift execution of this covert operation, the power of the Evil One has been broken, or as CS Lewis puts it in his famous novel, the grim spell of dark magic casted by the Great White Witch has been undone, at Aslan’s slaying at the Stone Table, and thereafter, Narnia and the Narnians were free again.[7]

Liberating the Planet. Apostle Paul writes in Romans 8 that the natural environment “groans in pain” as its await its liberation from decay in as much as humanity struggles to be set free from whatever it is that enslaves it whether selfishness, sickness, or even death itself.[8] The outpouring of God’s Spirit in people’s hearts (Ezek. 36:25-27), and the remarkable personal and social transformation that comes with it, is the earth’s assurance that one day it shall also see its own light of day. That is, liberated from the curse of devastation, the earthly realm shall once again be in full bloom. Apostle Peter speaks of God’s purifying fire that shall render the old heavens and old earth no more to usher in a new world (II Peter 3:12-13). The final picture was painted with more vivid details by Apostle John in his apocalyptic book (aka the Revelation). In its final chapters, he wrote down his vision of a new city of Jerusalem coming down from the heavens into a new earth. And he saw God dwelling with human beings once more in a place where there shall be no more tears, or pain, or sickness (Rev. 21:1-4).

Liberating its People. It is with this planetary renewal that the New Testament also pictures the promise of our bodily resurrection.[9] God’s work of transforming human beings into a new creation (Col. 3:10) does not stop with a renewal of personal morality and social relationships (Col. 3:5-11), not even with the security of one’s soul (I Peter 1:9). It includes, perhaps, most importantly, a promise of gaining a physical body free from imperfections and decay and death itself, exactly as the one Christ himself carried with him when he rose from the grave. Paul explains that as citizens of an new eternal city, its inhabitants shall need a new body that would be as equally glorious (I Cor. 15:35-55). If anything, this belief in bodily resurrection sets the early church’s understanding of salvation as sharply opposed to that of their Greek culture they inhabit which thinks of salvation as the liberation of the soul from the body.

While this hope of bodily redemption can easily be taken for granted by the average person, it is definitely good news for those who suffered from blindness and other physical ailments. That the lame can one day run and swim again, and that those born deaf can hear the most beautiful of Mozart’s musical composition shall be a most splendid news for those who went through life bereft of such simple joys. That this new body defies even the threat of death as well only means that the joys of life in the new heavens and new earth is something that human beings will enjoy with God not only for a limited moment but for eternity.

Liberating their Patterns of Life. As mentioned already, selfishness is part of what Christ has set human beings to be free of. This particular trait cuts across both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human relationships. This is because what is commonly regarded as ‘sinful’ acts are basically manifestations of a disposition of the heart and attitude of the mind that have no regard for the will of God and the welfare of other people. The so called problem of sin, at its very core, is an issue of idolatry at one level and apathy on another.[10] That is, the relentless turning of one’s desire to godlike proportions and putting one’s personal interest to the disregard (and in many times, to the detriment) of another human being. All the horrors of humanity, corruption and injustice in government, abuses and oppression in society, etc. can be rooted in this twin habits of the human heart.

In its place, Christ left the world with a way of living that mashes-up one’s love for God and one’s love for neighbor as two inseparable sides of the same coin (Luke 10:25-37).[10] At the cross, he exemplified what it means to live a life of sacrificial love (John 15:14, I John 3:16).[12] All who are to be called his disciples are enjoined to follow in his footsteps and live a life of compassion, forgiveness, and humility.[13] Christ spelled out how this pattern of life works out in everyday life most specifically in what is now called as the “Sermon on the Mount.”[14] Simply stated, to live a life that is godly is to be a good neighbor to all people, especially those mostly in need. This pattern of Christlike living has not only confronted but also influenced cultures and civilizations on what it means to look after the less fortunate and how to look upon and treat those pushed at the margins of society.[15]

This brief sketch of a possible re-reading of key passages in the New Testament shows that at the heart of what God sought to accomplish in history may well be about the liberation of life for all of His creation -the bees, the birds, your neighborhood and its cultural practices, including the rivers and hills in which it is located (Acts 17:26). Perhaps, this musing can provide an alternative for those coming out shortchanged as they look for what salvation is all about in today’s shopping complex of Christian goodies.

-Rei Lemuel Crizaldo

NOTES:
[1] This soteriological notion is reflected in popular Gospel presentations such as Evangelism Explosion (EE), Simplified Bridge Illustration, the Roman Road, and even in what is called as “The Wordless Book.” By the way it formulates the Good News, it also necessarily reduces the concept of salvation as finding the solution to the problem of sin and its punishment (the fires of hell) by securing the destiny of one’s soul in heaven. But as Prof. John Stackhouse Jr. of Regent College reminds us, “An understanding of salvation that amounts to a sort of spiritual individualism is little better than Gnosticism.” This is why he thinks there is a need to “redouble our efforts to teach what the Bible teaches about salvation in all its glorious complexity and scope” and“prod evangelical theology toward a vision of salvation as large as God’s mission to the world He loves and redeems” (see the book he edited, “What Does it Mean to Be Saved? Broadening Evangelical Horizons of Salvation” published by Baker Academic in 2002). This blogpost is a humble contribution to such a clarion call.
[2] Unfortunately, the term ‘liberation’ has been so rigidly associated (or even, ‘hijacked’) in theological literature as referring to the movement called Liberation Theology developed in Latin America (cf., Gustavo Gutierrez). But the term itself is a rich word that captures a lot of what the Bible says about ‘redemption.’ I am of the opinion, that the word might as well be redeemed from the usual theological baggage associated with it and be given a fresh lease of life. Interestingly, the Micah Global has recently framed its missiological understanding along the lines of ‘liberation’: “Scripture has a ‘liberating’ theme running through it and the climax of the Good News message is one of redemption and restoration. God is our Liberator, not only of humanity, but of all creation… We are to be signposts, demonstrating God’s liberating agenda for his world, proclaiming and pointing to the ultimate liberation of all things in heaven and earth when Christ returns” (cf., Sheryl Haw, Micah Global Inform October 2017 – “God’s Liberating Agenda”).
[3] The works of Old Testament scholars such as Walter Brueggemann (“Theology of the Old Testament”) and Chris Wright (“The Mission of God”), including the works of New Testament theologian NT Wright (initially, his book, “Surprised by Hope”), as well as the numerous articles of Latino missiologist C. Rene Padilla became formative influences in my reflections.
[4] I previously run a series of blogposts on this topic. First post can be found here: http://xgenesisrei.tumblr.com/post/159811395065/lifes-perfect-playbook
[5] Elsewhere, in Ephesians 1:8-10, Paul said that this project of reconciling everything in the heavens and on earth to Christ is God’s “secret plan.”
[6] This led some thinkers such as Greg Boyd to develop an overtly negative picture of the world wherein it has been so-wretched by Satan’s works that God has totally lost control of it. According to him, the whole world has turned into a kingdom of darkness and doom in which God’s people are called by God to set themselves apart. See his book “The Myth of a Christian Nation.”
[7] This storyline is from CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. But the idea of liberating the world from the dominion of the Evil One is articulated in what is called as the “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement. In essence, this theory highlights the ultimate issue underlying all that is wrong and broken in the world -the cosmic conflict between good and evil in the universe. It focuses on the element that what Christ has accomplished in his earthly mission is to liberate the world from Satan and undo the havoc that he and his demons has wrought upon God’s good creation. Simply said, the problem of humanity is not simply a sin-problem but a more bigger problem of devilish dominion.
It is unfortunate that the individualism and secularism of the Western world, with its skepticism of the paranormal and supernatural beings such as angels and demons, have paved the way for the monopolization in soteriology (theology of salvation) of the atonement theory called as ‘penal-substitution.’ This particular theory teaches that what Christ came to do is to pay for the sins of humanity and serve as their substitute sacrificial offering to appease God’s wrath and let them off the hook of His judgment and punishment in the lake of fire. It fostered a rather narrowed-down idea of redemption as basically an issue of sin-management and at a very personal level.
But the surge of Pentecostalism recaptured the notion of spiritual warfare and the importance of being delivered from the activities of evil demonic spirits. It brought back into the table the neglected dimensions of soteriology that involves the need to free the world not only from penalty of sin but also from the power of Satan.
[8] Paul used in this verse the Greek word ‘eleutheroo’ which means to be set at liberty. Same word used by Paul in Galatians 5:1. ‘To be set free’ is the common translation in English but the picture suggested by the Greek is to possess liberty.
[9] Walter Brueggemann insists that people’s identity are closely tied up to the land they inhabit, even and most especially, the people of God (see his book “The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith”).
[10] Interestingly, Apostle Paul taught both the believers in Ephesus and at Colossae that greed is basically a case of idolatry (Col. 3:5 and Eph. 5:5).
[11] Elsewhere, Jesus called this two commands as the greatest of all (Matt 22:36-40 and Mark 12:28-34). John the Beloved vividly captured the fusion of the two commands by saying, “If people say, ‘I love God,’ but hate their brothers or sisters, they are liars. Those who do not love their brothers and sisters, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have never seen” (I John 4:20).
[12] It is by laying down this example of giving one’s life for another that Jesus left a new commandment to his disciples in John 13:33. Unlike what he regarded as the greatest of all the commandments in the Old Testament, his new command raises the bar of love for one’s neighbor -no longer just love for one’s self but Christ’s love for the world.
[13] Perhaps, the Old Testament counterpart to this kind of life is what prophet Micah enjoined the Israelites to do as the sum of what Yahweh expects from them: “This is what God requires of you: to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
[14] See Matthew chapters 5-7.
[15] Works abound on how the ethical teachings of Jesus have left a deep impact in Western society that in time has embraced Christianity not only as a way of life but also a way of organizing society. See for example Rodney Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity” and Alvin Schmidt’s “Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization” and Glenn Sunshine’s “Why You Think the Way You Do: The Story of Western Worldviews from Rome to Home.” On how the early church made such a deep impact to Roman society, see Helen Reese’s “Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation.”

 

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